Juvenile Instructor » Wife… Mother… And…?
 


Wife… Mother… And…?

By: Cristine - June 18, 2013

Let me be blunt. This makes me mad:

2013.6.11, Boston Frangelico ad

A seemingly innocent advertisement…

I walk home from work most days and on a one mile stretch of that walk, on Western Avenue in the Allston neighborhood of Boston, this ad appears on no fewer than three bus stop shelters. One of these bus stops is only a quarter of a mile from a playground and little league baseball diamond. It’s across the street from a grocery store. It doubles as a stop for school buses for children of various ages. And in a city where people routinely walk and use the public transit system, you can bet it gets seen. I’ve been contemplating it for weeks.

Why does this advertisement make me mad, you ask? It’s just a pretty woman out for a good time with her man (presumably her husband).

Just a happy couple out for a good time…

 

She’s earned it. The text tells us she’s had a rough day:

766

Woke up to a crying baby.
Played tea party before her first cup of coffee.
Cleaned mac and cheese out of her hair.
Not wearing anything under her dress.
WHAT’S INSIDE MAY SURPRISE YOU.

 

So what’s my problem? She’s out with the grown-ups. She’s dressed in a nice dress. She is, we can infer based on the product being advertised, enjoying an adult beverage. (Clearly the ad isn’t aimed at observant Mormons—but I’m not concerned here with the propriety of alcohol consumption or even of the advertisement of alcohol on public transit.) And she is engaging in a little bit of innocently risqué behavior. (I say “innocently” because she’s not showing it off to other people in the image—the knowledge of it appears to be meant for her and her husband alone.)

But here’s the thing. In this advertisement, the woman’s value is based on two things: 1) motherhood, and 2) her ability to sexually titillate her husband—and us, the viewers of the ad. That’s it.

Please don’t misunderstand me—I have the utmost respect for the real work, value, and pleasure that go into and come from raising children, including for those women (and men) who choose to make child-rearing their primary work. But what of all the other things a woman does with her day? The ad doesn’t tell us she’s letting off steam at the end of a long day that included work or school. It doesn’t indicate that she had a rough day volunteering in her child’s classroom. It doesn’t imply that she earned her good time by fulfilling commitments to a religion, a charity, or her community more generally. She earned it by staying home with the children. Whatever else she did with her day—and as a woman and a relative and friend of many other women, I guarantee you there was more—isn’t part of what makes her valuable here.

And what did she earn? The right to change, Cinderella-like, in a way that will fulfill her husband’s sexual desires. They aren’t enjoying adult conversation over a fine meal as they sip their adult beverages. In fact the activity they’re currently engaged in—dancing—doesn’t warrant a mention in the text. It’s clearly just a prelude. I suppose we could make the argument that she’s fulfilling her own desires as well as her husband’s, but given that she’s clearly meant as the object of both her husband’s gaze and the consumer’s it doesn’t appear that her experience is of primary importance.

So here we have an advertisement that says to viewers—including, in this neighborhood, a high proportion of college students, working class men and women, and children—that a woman’s value is encapsulated in motherhood and sexuality.

What does this have to do with Mormonism or, more specific to my research, representations of Mormons? Well, as Megan Goodwin showed us a few weeks ago, women’s sexuality is a powerful tool by which American culture seeks to criticize, contain, and control suspected minority groups AND women more generally. And we can see this again and again and again in the history of American images of the Mormons.

In the 19th century, the Latter-day Saint men often were depicted as a lascivious horde intent on using their religion to woo and enslave attractive young women (see, for example, the notorious “memoir” published under the name of Maria Ward in 1856—and see also the episode of the PBS show History Detectives in which a contemporary American woman seemed almost disappointed to discover that the Ward “memoir” was a fiction). In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, national newspapers reported on Mormon missions to Europe as if they were wife-gathering safaris, and they published head counts of the women who arrived in major Eastern ports of call on their way to Utah and noted when government officials felt the need to investigate the Mormons’ purposes in bringing women to the United States. Harriet Beecher Stowe called for Americans to save Mormon women. Ann Eliza Young made a career of writing books and delivering lectures on the depravity of the Mormon system. I could go on. Polygamy was regarded as both an outlet for sexual depravity and a source of cheap labor—it was slavery’s barbaric twin, after all—but in each case women were portrayed as victims who were valued for their ability to satisfy men sexually, to produce children, and to work. They were not even credited with any agency in their decision to become Mormons, but were rather the victims of kidnap, coercion, or, as the 1922 film Trapped by the Mormons would have it, a man’s mesmeric eye.

As the 20th century progressed, women’s victimhood within Mormonism changed shape, but remained a prevalent image. Back-to-back Pulitzer Prize-winning novels nicely illustrate the different images that persisted. In the case of the 1958 winner The Travels of Jaimie McPheeters, 19th-century Mormon women on the frontier are nameless, faceless victims of men’s sadistic violence. One Mormon leader particularly enjoys publicly whipping women who he deemed sinful:

Somebody said he seemed to relish it, being uncommonly religious even for a Mormon, and would grow flushed and sweaty, while shouting prayer aloud in a kind of frenzy as the naked women twisted and screamed. But when it was over, he was limp and loose, as if he had really driven the devil out. Most everybody was afraid of him, he was so religious. [1]

Advise and Consent, a contemporary political thriller that won the Pulitzer the following year, hinged on an idealistic young Mormon senator who was discovered to have had a homosexual relationship. Readers were not only invited to consider the senator’s sexual sins but also their effect on his young wife, who clearly suffered because her husband did not (could not) love her as he should. [2] Whether through violent brutality or cruel indifference, in each case women were depicted as the victims of Mormon men’s (and Mormonism’s) sexual depravity.

You can find similar images in more recent representations of the Saints. Paperback potboilers and memoirs like Deborah Laake’s 1993 bestseller Secret Ceremonies seethe with frustrated and dissatisfied Mormon housewives. [3] Christopher Cain’s 2007 film September Dawn used graphic depictions of bloody savagery against women and children to depict the Mountain Meadows massacre. And of course there’s always Jon Krakauer’s bestselling exploration of violence in Mormonism, Under the Banner of Heaven, which focused Elizabeth Smart’s kidnapping and the 1984 murder of young wife and mother who refused to enter a polygamous marriage. [4] And just as each example illustrates women’s victimization, each also ignores or denies the fullness of Mormon women’s experiences and their agency in affiliating with and the depths of their participation in their religion.

Mormon women deserve to be treated with greater respect than they have often been given in popular renderings of the Latter-day Saints. They deserve to be valued for far more than having and raising men’s babies and fulfilling men’s desires. All women do. But that’s not the image that America’s selling.

 

 

[1] Robert Lewis Taylor (New York: Doubleday), 330.

[2] Alan Drury (New York: Doubleday, 1959). The book was adapted into a 1962 film starring Peter Fonda.

[3] Secret Ceremonies: A Mormon Woman’s Intimate Diary of Marriage and Beyond (New York: William Morrow and Company, Inc.).

[4] Under the Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent Faith (New York: Doubleday, 2003).

 



6 Comments

  1. A powerful piece Cristine!

    Comment by Tod R. — June 18, 2013 @ 11:29 am

  2. Very powerful. The female image seems to be something Mormonism struggles with–both from an internal and external viewpoint. Not surprising, I guess, seeing as society imagines typically imagines its women, as you’ve shown here. It makes me mad, too.

    Comment by Saskia — June 18, 2013 @ 3:06 pm

  3. Nothing to add, just acknowledging a very thought-provoking post about subliminal cultural values. Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this.

    Comment by kevinf — June 18, 2013 @ 6:00 pm

  4. Thanks, everyone.

    If you aren’t already following it, they’re also having a great conversation on issues of sexuality and modesty over at By Common Consent. I found Jacob’s post yesterday on “Men, Sex, and Modesty” particularly powerful: http://bycommonconsent.com/2013/06/18/men-sex-and-modesty/

    Comment by Cristine — June 19, 2013 @ 8:30 am

  5. […] Wife…Mother…And? (Cristine, Juvenile Instructor) […]

    Pingback by Volume 2.25 (June 17-23) « The Nightstand @ Weightier Matters of the Law — June 24, 2013 @ 8:29 pm

  6. Does an add necessarily need to address all aspects of human existence from a female perspective to not be objectionable? Does it need to consciously seek to reinforce the aspects of the female experience that don’t involve her relationships with her immediate family for it not to be evil or patriarchal or oppressive? There are thousands of adds that feature women at work, women exercising, women reading, women driving, women having fun. Maybe…. never mind. I’m probably screwed up. Sigh, can’t they just sell some damn liquor without somebody writing her dissertation on it?

    Comment by Jacob — June 26, 2013 @ 5:36 pm